Friday, June 15, 2007

What would you say to the McCanns?

Madeleine McCannMadeleine McCann is still big news in Britain and in some parts of Western Europe, more than a month after she was abducted. For those of you who don’t know, just over 40 days ago, the McCann family was on holiday in a Portugese resort. The McCanns had just laid their kids, soon to be 4-year old Madeleine and her twin siblings to bed in their room while they dined just a 100 yards away, going back to check on them at half-hourly intervals. Sometime between 9.30 and 10 pm, Madeleine disappears, believed to have been abducted. A window and a shutter in the room has been opened.

Since then her anxious parents have done, as any parent would, anything in their power to try to find their missing daughter. What is different though, is the intensity of their campaign. They have gone through normal avenues, making TV appeals and utilising CrimeStoppers. Since then, celebrities such as David Beckham and J.K Rowling have got in on the act, appealing to anyone and everyone to help. Maddy’s big picture was on the big screen during the Champions League and UEFA Cup final. Businessmen have offered rewards. The McCanns themselves are in the midst of a European tour, making stops in places like Germany and Morocco and even managed an audience with the Pope, being Catholics. They have hired a media professional. When I was in Heathrow 2 weeks ago, Maddy’s picture was plastered everywhere, and she was news in Spain as well.

Since then, there has been a backlash of sorts: with some questioning the McCanns parenting and their decision to leave the kids alone in the first place. Others wonder whether the McCanns are just publicity hounds, and whether too much attention has been paid to this particular child. Indeed, some have questioned the politics, wondering whether Maddy would have received any attention at all if she were not photogenic, British and her parents not upper-middle class (both are doctors).

It’s a truly heartbreaking story. There’s nothing worse than being in limbo. In a sense, it’s even worse than death, because at least with death, there is some sort of closure. In this scenario, only uncertainty reigns. All you have with you is a 1001 possibilities, all of them darker than the last, as much as you don’t want your thoughts to stray there.

And I begin to wonder: as a Christian, what would I say to the McCanns if I knew them, or could speak to them? I cannot accept the brickbats that have been thrown their way. Many have condemned them. What sort of parent leaves 3 year olds alone, they ask? How could they be so selfish as to think of their own enjoyment instead of their child’s welfare? Yet I believe that the McCanns already harbour such thoughts, for who among us will not succumb to such harsh self-criticism when such a horrifying thing happens? I cannot imagine the bouts of self-doubt both of them go through, the what-ifs, whatever their public face. The McCanns obviously love their kids, having opted for IVF treatment to be able to have them in the first place. And so there is nothing to be gained from self-righteous condemnation. In fact, all the McCanns have experienced is abruptly having the chimera of a completely safe world shattered more cruelly than most.

And so compassion must be an obvious starting point. There are valid points made about the politics of the media, about the attention given to them when many other children go missing every day, but now is not the time to have that debate, or at the very least the McCanns are not the conversation partners for that discussion. India Knight is right: Two wrongs don’t make a right: would it be preferable for Madeleine to become an anonymous statistic too? Would ignoring the McCanns and their desperate appeal somehow honour the other 100 nameless missing children? It’s hard to see how.

But let us keep wrestling with the question of what to say to the McCanns. Do we urge them not to give up, to hold out hope that Maddy might still be alive? Is that a kind or cruel thing to do? For the statistics are grim: I think I read somewhere that once you don’t find someone whose missing within the first 48 hours, the chances of finding them drop drastically. But how can you ask them to move on? I still remember the time when the helicopter carrying 7 people, including 3 from our church and one I knew personally went down in the interior of Sarawak in the summer of 2004. I have blogged about it. We knew nothing. One day we heard that they had been found, only to discover that was a false alarm. I still remember going to church night after night and praying, with so little information, that they might still be alive, that they would be able to find food and drink, that the rescue personnel will find them. It was like grasping at straws. It’s difficult to move on when you’re not sure you’re supposed to, for anything less only feels like a betrayal.

We were lucky, in a sense. We found them. And in so doing, we could grieve and process our loss, as I did for Uncle Jason. But what if Maddy is not found? Can business as usual ever resume?

So then, what should we say? Should we say nothing? Do we have no words, or perhaps only words which sully, offerings too trite for consolation? Is silence the only appropriate statement?

I don’t know. I don’t know the words to say or not to say. I can only suppose, unsurprisingly, that our response in the end must still be conditioned by God and the gospel. For how can I offer comfort? I can’t, not much, anyway. I am a fellow human. I can only choose to speak forth about the One who can, one who is “other” but also became one of us. Yet how can I do that without being callous? But if I were a Christian who knew the McCanns, that has to be the way. I cannot speak about things I do not know. I can know, with confidence though, that God loves his children. He deals with sinful, wayward people like you and me, and through his Son, he shows his love. He will not blame Gerry and Kate McCann for what they did, or chastise them for not parenting better. The cross alleviates their shame, should they cling to it. And that must surely be part of our response, a gracious approach that is different from the world’s condemnation.

Maddy’s loss is hugely painful, and the uncertainty surrounding her circumstances only makes it worse. It feels so…random. Why her? Why others as well? And if we push this further, we begin to ask well, why is the world around us so…terrible? Why Iraq and Darfur? And so any response, anything we might say, must truly be sorrowful at the way things are. The McCanns must constantly struggle with anger, with frustration, with melancholy. As they should, for such emotions begins to see the world without blinkers, their world without rose-tinted glasses, a recognition that injustice has somehow been served. And again, this is one way we can offer a response different from the world. David Aaronovitch, somewhat bitingly, tells us of what our natural thought processes are:
The next thing is hard to write. If I’ve heard one parent say that they’re now holding their own child a bit tighter, a bit closer, then I’ve heard a hundred. But it isn’t our child. Our child is safe. The mother who takes the toddler to the Maddy shrine may be congratulating herself on her own good fortune, as much as commiserating with the McCanns. Another, placing the poster in the window, may – like the supporter of a football team – be associating themselves with the big story, with the historic moment. They may, in short, be getting a subconscious thrill. They may, as they comb the papers or scan the bulletins, be feeling a pleasure.
But as Christians, we know better. The world is a terrifying place. It’s full of risks. It groans. Fallen is the Bible word. And if we’ve absorbed that, we can truly empathise with the McCanns. Then comes the hard part. It’s saying, it won’t always be like that. We won’t always be like that, holding onto the cross. The McCann’s tragedy won’t be minimised. There probably won’t be a time when it doesn’t hurt. But according to God, one day it will be transformed. After the cross comes the resurrection. And God says, how about I start my redemptive work in you right now? Would you be willing to trust me, even after the Maddy affair?

Actually, I won’t be able to say that to the McCanns, because I find it difficult to trust God even without suffering as they have. That part is best left to God, I think. God will issue that invitation himself. But a faithful God and a promise-keeping God is who we signpost.

We become so aware of our limitations, our lack of authority to speak into such situations. Thankfully, we have a God who speaks, and we can speak his words after Him.

Bring Madeleine Home, the official website

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